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A surprise viral hit: Income inequality, the movie

You may have seen this video recently, about wealth inequality.

It's gone viral over the last week or so, which isn’t news in itself, of course. Stuff goes viral all the time. But usually it’s cute kids dressed as turtles, strange and hilarious music videos and music video spoofs.

But wealth inequality? Not the sexiest of subjects.

It's not a flashy video. It is a little over six minutes long.  It has moody music.  It has a voiceover from a guy with a slight southern twang. It has lots of charts showing how Americans think wealth is distributed, compared to how it actually is.

So why does this video suddenly have more than 3 million hits?

I decided to work backwards and follow the viral chain. I first saw the video thanks to my boyfriend, who’d seen it through a post his friend, Brent, put on his Facebook page. I called up Brent, and he told me he found the video on Facebook too, and has no idea who made it. His best guess was “some guy in his bedroom who said, 'You know, people need to know about this. I’m just going to make a little animation here.'”

Brent’s theory is basically right. Someone by the name of "politizane" posted the video back in November on YouTube. A reporter from the magazine Mother Jones tracked politizane down a few days ago. He said he wanted to stay anonymous, but described himself as a freelance designer, “from a red state,” who'd been struck by a wealth inequality study he’d read about, conducted by two professors.

Duke Marketing professor Dan Ariely happens to be one of those professors. “I think what made it big,” Ariely says of the video, “was that one of the actors from Star Trek put it on his Facebook.”

That actor, George Takei, who played Sulu on "Star Trek," told me he posted the video right after the sequester kicked into gear, because he'd been thinking a lot about how the across the board budget cuts might affect an already shrinking middle class.

 “I thought that video captured it so visually, so powerfully,” Takei told me. Takei happens to have 3.6 million followers on Facebook, meaning he’s a sort of "super connector” who all by himself can help a video go viral. But it turns out that Takei also found the video through Facebook, in a post that a friend linked to from mashable.com.

Websites like Mashable and Upworthy, which also posted the video in the last few days, make a lot of money embedding videos they think will go viral, says Maksim Tsvetovat, a professor of computer science who researches social networks at George Mason University. These sites will either sell ads next to them, or sell data on who clicked on what posts. “That data itself is priceless,” explains Tsvestovat. “Marketers will pay a lot to know what are people’s interests, how information spreads on a specific topic, and how fast.”

To those who see irony in a video about wealth inequality generating serious revenue for private businesses, Tsvetovat points out "it's in the nature of capitalism to exploit anything that looks like an opportunity.” Even when that opportunity is a viral video highlighting the impact of unfettered capitalism.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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